How can a game with so many tools designed specifically to keep the player alive do such a good job at making them dead? Zenzizenzic is a twin-stick shooter that hands you far more weapons than is normal for the genre and then crowds the screen with so many enemies, bullets and obstacles that, despite there being something useful in its bag of tricks for every possible occasion, still wipe the floor with you. Primary weapons, multiple secondary weapons, different weapon effects depending on player speed, protective shields that can be detonated and still it’s not enough. Except for those moments when everything comes together and everything on the screen is little more than a fodder for the bullet hell you’re throwing back its way, at which point all the sweat invested in learning how to play becomes worth it. For as long as it lasts, at any rate.
Zenzizenzic popped up on Kickstarter last year and, after a successful campaign raked in a little more than its very modest goal, it was picked up by Adult Swim Games. The arcade version had been completed but a stretch goal of a quest mode had to be put on the back burner, and Adult Swim Games allowed this to be completed after all. Now Zenzizenzic has hit Early Access with the full arcade mode completed and ready to play while the quest mode is a work in progress. There’s a lot of ground to cover in here but the short version is, if you like twin-stick shooters, there’s a plenty love in here. The long version, however-
Zenzizenzic is an actual word, an obsolete mathematical notation for a square squared, such as 2^2^2 = 16, or 3^2^2 = 81. You can also get the same result by raising a number to the fourth power, so this perfectly useful word was rotting away in the back of the English language’s metaphorical closet. Seeing as Zenzizenzic is a game about a square shooting square enemies who fire square bullets, the title makes perfect sense once you know what it means. It’s an abstract shooter not so much about all of geometry at war with itself, but merely the square bits.
Due to the number of weapon options there’s a huge amount of ways to approach each situation. The main gun shoots a flat, wide bullet in a constant stream, but enemies drop pickups quickly enough that it doesn’t take long on even the hardest levels to max it out. The first power-up adds spikes, the second is weak homing missiles, and the third a pair of slow firing but very powerful large projectiles that cause damage while they pass through enemies. Those last are the key to clearing out the big guys, because they respond in different ways to your speed. The right trigger is a zippy speed-up and left is for slow down, and while your regular shots fire as normal the big round slow things (which could really use a proper name) change velocity in relation to the ship’s speed. Holding down the brakes? The big gun shoots slow bullets that do damage constantly as they amble through an enemy, which is perfect when you’ve got a big guy on the screen taking up all the real estate. On the opposite side of things, holding down the speed-up makes the big gun bullets go faster, which is extra-handy for clearing out fields of little guys. The main gun without its final powerup is definitely powerful, but there’s a lot of little guys on the screen for it to clear most of the time and sub-bosses show up in quick succession.
In addition to the main gun, the ship comes with two sub-weapons powered by the little square pickups every destroyed enemy leaves behind. The more full the energy meter is, the stronger the effect, although what that effect may be varies wildly among the six selectable options. Homing missiles are easy, they pop out in all directions and target the nearest enemy, and you don’t have to think too much to use them. The charge shot, on the other hand, requires you to hold down the assigned button to build up power, let it go to send the shot across the screen, and then decide the best way to use it on its journey. If you leave it alone, directing your bullets away, the shot bulls through anything it touches just like the last main-gun ability. Shoot it, however, and it eventually explodes in a giant square that acts as a safe zone while it lasts. Time Jump slows down time while you move a cursor around to choose a safe spot to jump to, with a shock wave emanating from the ship that wipes out enemy bullets dependent on how long you charge the jump for. Some weapons are simple (the two laser types) and the Black Hole is actually more complicated than Charge Shot or Time Jump, but you can release practice enemies on the weapon select screen to test things out on. There’s technique involved, sure, but Zenzizenzic is more than happy to let you learn it before throwing you into the meat grinder.
The last regular ability is the shield, which sounds simple enough but, of course, has a trick to it. The shield is a power-up dropped more rarely than gun powerups but still show up relatively frequently, not because Zenzizenzic is being kind but because the shield is another opportunity for points harvesting. Leave the shield in place and it functions in its expected passive fashion, soaking up a single hit. The shield actually is harder to maintain than your regular life because while the ship’s hit-box is small, the shield surrounds the ship and its damage area is exactly what it looks like. You might be able to squeeze through a tight swarm of firepower without a shield, but with one on you might as well use it by clicking the right stick. This causes the shield to explode, wiping out all bullets in a decent-sized area and doing very nice things for the score. Killing enemies will take you a long way, but exploiting the bullet-canceling properties of the special weapons and the shield is how you earn a spot on the leaderboards.
With all that under your belt, it’s time to attack the two main game modes of Classic and Macro. Classic is the arcade-style arena shooter, and Macro a free-roaming twin-stick semi-roguelike. Aside from the basic structure there are also a couple of notable gameplay differences between the two.
Classic is a set of five levels, each with a different enemy theme and color. Level 1 is orange, with enemies that fire at you in relatively simple ways. Level 2 is pink and introduces laser-firing enemies, cutting the available screen area into much smaller sections as their firepower bisects the arena. Level 3 turns green and is all about homing missiles, Level 4 is blue and has enemies that drop walls, and Level 5 is black and white everything, all at once. Each level has normal, hard, and extra-hard versions available with achievements for each variation, plus practice modes for the bonus levels and boss encounters. Each level is hand-built, with enemies streaming in the same way every time, so with experience you can learn where to be during the onslaught and what weapon combos work best for you in specific situations.
Macro mode, on the other hand, is more free-form. You start in a safe room with a few powerups to get you started (unless you play Very Hard, in which case good luck) and four exits. Pick a direction and go exploring in an infinite free-scrolling world of enemies, bosses, and occasional power-up shots. Powering up is very different in Macro than in Classic, with far more stats to play with. Destroying groups of enemies rewards a ring of yellow squares that, when you clear them by flying over, drop either a shield or gun powerup as well as a random stat enhancer. Faster ship, more powerful gun, quicker firing, larger destruction radius when the shield is activated, and many more are all available to either find or buy, and there are even single-use abilities to find. Everything is bought with points from your score, so even if you complete Macro (which is only complete up to the second boss as yet, so at the moment that’s a reasonably attainable goal) odds are good it won’t be with a score to write home about. Even with only two bosses, though, Macro can take a bit to get through, so hopefully there will be a save feature as Macro expands to its full size.
Zenzizenzic is basically two games in one: an arena shooter and a free-roaming one. While there’s very little crossover between the two modes, they’re still both recognizably born from the same idea, just tweaked to work within the parameters of each. Classic and Macro mode both throw hordes of enemies and swarms of bullets your way, tossing you into the deep end to figure out the best tool for every situation while also providing plenty of opportunity for learning. Zenzizenzic is a far more complicated game than you’ll normally see in the twin-stick genre, but the abilities that make it tricky to learn also add incredible depth to the shooting. There’s an enormous world of technique and a million square enemies to practice it on in the colorful geometries of Zenzizenzic, and much like driving a car, once you know what all the bits do you can make that machine sing.